Listening to the Mississippi, 2019

August 17th, 2019

Using artistic underwater recordings, Listening to the Mississippi asks listeners to experience the river through sound.

Listening to the Mississippi is an iterative project that has unfolded since 2013 and currently manifests as a sound composition and traveling listening station. Using underwater recordings gathered in 2015 by artists Monica Haller and Sebastian Müllauer that span the river from the headwaters to the Gulf, Listening to the Mississippi asks listeners to orient themselves to the river through their sense of sound, rather than by sight alone. The project seeks to understand the Mississippi as a dynamic condition that includes the past and the present and stretches across a great distance. Through the use of mobile listening packs that include headphones, a felted mat, and listening notes, the project cultivates distinct moments of engagement that accumulate through compilations of sound and the activation of other senses: sight, smell, and even touch.

In the present iteration of Listening to the Mississippi, prepared specifically for Mississippi. An Anthropocene River, composers Michi Wiancko and Judd Greenstein have created an audio landscape that takes the listener on an imaginative journey down the river, blending original music composed of sounds from both the natural and human worlds captured around the Mississippi itself.

Artists Erika Terwilliger, Prerna, Harriet Matzdorf, and Monica Haller made listening packs that transport, hold, and support Wiancko and Greenstein’s composition. The listening pack invites the listener to sit, stay, linger, and be present where they are. It is designed to be mobile and adaptable for listening at both rural and urban sites along the riverbank, from the Upper Mississippi to New Orleans. Visitors arriving at each listening station can check out a listening pack and explore the composition at their own pace, walking where they choose along levees and river battures, and adjacent woodlands.

Part of the work of active listening is imaginative listening. We try to create conditions to perceive gaps between what one cannot literally see and hear but which already and always exist in a place. Therefore, from its onset, Listening to the Mississippi conceives of sound as a medium to enter the river’s historical, social, and environmental materials. Dropping the hydrophone in the water just north of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, one hears the deep, steady, low tones of passing water where the river is wide and strong. Here, nine groups of Cherokee people, nearly 12,000 individuals, were forced to cross the Mississippi river in deadly winter conditions in the years following the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Their forced migration was part of the Trail of Tears, the violent removal of the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee people—and including the mixed-race and enslaved people who lived there too—from their homelands in the Southeast.

On the river, sounds repeat. They are mundane. This is a steady undertone that is old and very present. Then, what differences are there among the experiences of people located in the same time and place? Silence registers differently, too. The sound of oil leaking from an uncapped well in Bayou Barataria, Los Angeles, technically cannot be heard by the human ear; fluid displacing a fluid doesn’t cause breaks or ruptures that would create an audible splash or sound wave. What does it mean here to give time and silence to something you cannot hear? What material and imaginative gaps emerge between the localization of site and the broader system of which it is part?